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  • Jenny Heinzen York

Tom Ward takes his leave

NEW YORK -Closing out a 30-year career at WestPoint Stevens, and about to set off on a two-month trip to Australia, outgoing president Tom Ward was relaxed, casual and remarkably unembittered about his abrupt dismissal, 10 weeks before, from a company he'd served for the past three decades.

Any regrets? "Not a one," said Ward, maintaining the affable, gentlemanly demeanor he'd cultivated years before. "I'm quite satisfied with my life. I've had a good experience here from a business sense, a great experience from a personal sense. I leave a lot of friends, and I take a lot of really good memories."

During his three-decade career, Ward helped to guide WestPoint, and its predecessor, J.P. Stevens, through a turbulent era in the industry: first the buyout and break-up of Stevens by WestPoint; a failed takeover of WestPoint by maverick financier Bill Farley; and the painful bankruptcy and restructuring that followed. When the largest company in the industry was floundering in disarray, it was Ward who held hands, calmed anxious workers and kept all the noses pointed straight ahead.

Through those 30 years of industry turmoil, what surprised him most? "You know, you're making me fell like an old geezer when you ask a question like that. But when I started out what I never expected to see was the disappearance of the great department store names-companies like Woodward & Lothrop, Gimbels, Strawbridge & Clothier, Wannamakers, Emporium-Capwell, and on and on. No one ever expected to see all those names disappear; they were kings. Of the top 100 department stores back then, maybe 20 are left. Now there's a whole new generation that never heard of those companies. Now I really am feeling old," quipped the 55-year-old Ward. "I'm not sure that all this nostalgia is such a good thing." He grinned.

Another revelation was the widespread impact that new technologies would have in a very short period of time. "That just blows me away. When I was a salesman on the road, I had to stay up all night in a hotel room writing up stacks of orders and then mailing them in to the office the next day. Now you have computers doing everything and vendor managed inventories."

Other changes? "The quality looks are much better, the quality of the fabric is much better," he said. "But the key thing is there is a much better understanding of consumers' needs and how to satisfy them, how to deal with multiple consumers and multiple diversities."

What remains to be done? "To step up product innovation-to find some genuinely dramatic innovation. We did that with Vellux; we made something entirely new. And it's been a huge success. But now we need to do that again; you've got to keep the wheel turning. You sit still and you're dead. But this is the problem when companies get as big as this one-innovation and creativity and risk-taking all get lost in the shuffle when you expend all your energy feeding the big mass merchants and trying to hit a price point that keeps getting lower and lower. At some point that's got to stop, or this industry disappears. You need innovation, and you need it at every channel."

What's next for Ward? He grinned broadly, shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands into the air-hands shackled for the next 12 months by golden handcuffs that require that he have no specific job plans. "I haven't given it any thought. My wife Mary tells me take a vacation, then packs my bags. My only worry is that she wants to go to places that have lots of bugs and no electricity. When I get back, I'll analyze the opportunities and decide where life is going to take me."

Then it's time to take a farewell photo with "Best," his gate-keeper and assistant for the past 10 years. "Where do you want to do this," asks Ward, a man widely known for his discomfort in front of a camera.

In the showroom, Best tweaked her boss, "Why don't you lie down on the bed, and I'll sit here like I'm the psychiatrist and you're the patient?"

Ward took a step back. "I don't think that's going to happen."

Best tried again. "Well how about I hug you and give you a great big kiss?"

Now the famously straight-laced Ward looked genuinely stricken. "I don't think that's going to happen either." They settle for a handshake.

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